One of the responses to my initial posting on Constantine’s conversion contained this remark:
Though I see Constantine’s conversion as a total fake (I think he did not believe anything really and was an opportunist)…
This is a good point, that deserves a reply at some length. Constantine was pragmatic, certainly, but precisely because of that, I think that the vision – whatever it may have been – was real.
I am trying to imagine how I would respond to a politician who claims to have seen the light. I am not talking now about born-again American presidents like Jimmy Carter, but about someone who really claims to be on a mission from God. I think that I would, if I were in a bad mood, not trust him, and would, if I were in a good mood, recommend him to consult a psychiatrist.
My distrust, I think, is pretty common. Leaders who claimed to have experienced some kind of revelation, were nearly always subject to ridicule: Alexander‘s soldiers did not believe he was the son of Ammon, Jesus dryly commented that “a prophet is not honored at home”, and Muhamad had to leave Mecca. Joan of Arc was subject to ridicule first, and the French king refused to help her later, when the English had taken her captive. Polybius seems to shield Scipio Africanus from criticism by stating that the Roman general did not really believe in the mystical powers others attributed to him.
Pretending to have a divine revelation is just not smart for a politician. People like Joan of Arc, Muhamad, and Jesus really must have experienced something, and I think Constantine must indeed have seen a vision (as mentioned as early in 309/310 by the Panegyricist). It must have confused him profoundly, first interpreting it as a sign from the sun god, later reinterpreting it as a sign from Christ. Personally, I find the idea very attractive that the Roman emperor, the most powerful man on earth, felt himself led by Something Bigger Than Himself, but never quite never understood what that might have been.